Hugo Proposal for Best Translated Novel

For several years now, I’ve been involved in publishing and promoting translated science fiction. If you haven’t heard, there’s now a proposal to create a Hugo Award for Best Translated Novel. (The only place I’ve seen it mentioned is here: http://file770.com/best-translated-novel-hugo-category-proposed/)

The biggest problem I have with this proposal is the message it sends not only to domestic readers, but foreign authors, editors, and publishers: translated works are not as good as ours, so we’re making a special category for you so you can get awards too. I don’t believe that’s the intention of those who drafted this proposal. I think they approached it with the best of intentions, but simply got it wrong. For years now, I have been making the case that we should be treating translated and international works as equals: stories worthy of standing alongside those we have routinely seen published. This proposal sends the opposite message, and on those grounds intend to vote no.

Translated works are capable of winning the Hugo without any special treatment. As they point out in their own commentary, three translated works have won since 2015, despite the relatively low number of translations published among a wide sea of domestic releases.

If the source of the perceived problem is that not enough people are reading translations to provide a fair opportunity at nomination, though, then I would suggest that a special Hugo is not the solution to the problem and that their predicament is not unique. The same argument can be made for a wide array of self-published, small press, or even limited edition works.

I’ll counter their Wollheim quote with one by Lester Del Rey:

“…our stories are set to large numbers of fans and translators all over the world, while our own authors and fans seldom get even a hint of the work being done in our field by others. We’re in serious danger of becoming the most provincial science-fiction readers—and writers—on earth.” (International Science-Fiction, June 1968.)

That prediction came to pass and those three Hugos—among other things—are demonstrating that we might actually be waking up from that long provincial nap. The stigma of translations is starting to fade and more publishers are beginning to invest in these efforts. That said, there’s still a mountain of progress to be made with the wider community of readers, editors, and publishers. That’s a marketing problem and not one to solve with a Hugo.

I’m also concerned by the decision to specifically single out novels, when translations are possible across all categories. The proposal even draws comparison to the Academy Award’s “Best Foreign Film,” which it could have just as easily argued as a category for the Hugos, but didn’t. If the motivation was based on the body of work in a category, then surely the short fiction categories would have been more worthy of consideration as the greatest variety of translated science fiction and fantasy can be found there. If the selection of novel is based on the prestige of the category, then they are suggesting one of lesser prestige for those works to compete in.

Others might justify the category by saying that many non-Anglophone countries also include special awards for translated works—often in multiple categories. That, however, is often born of circumstances not applicable here. Anglophone SF is something of an invasive species in many markets. Our translated works can saturate a field, sometimes representing more than 50% of the novels published in a year. As a result, these awards have segregated in a way that allows their local communities to flourish. It’s a matter of pride to celebrate one’s own local community, particularly when another’s community dominates—even if it’s only a perception of quality. The inverse is not true. Breaking off translated works on their own reinforces the negative perception that anglophone SF is the king of the hill and that they aren’t welcome or as worthy. Every time a translated work wins, it helps shatter that illusion. Please don’t take that away. 

[Side note: In short fiction, we have a several decades long history of well-meaning people trying to increase the audience for translated works in our field. Often this has been done by bundling translations together and setting them aside from domestic works. People who have an existing bias against translated works–or even foreign films–aren’t going to engage with narrowly-focused efforts. It’s simply preaching to the choir. This category would continue down that path.]

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